Community Development: Technology Makes the Impossible Seem Normal

| Steven C. Philpott, Sr.

In the evolution of computing, technology has been at the intersection of many fields. Now there are both the need and opportunity for the intersection of community development and technology. This “emerging technology” will, in no uncertain terms, have a positive effect on commerce and social attitudes in distressed communities and the broader public.

I believe disparate but interrelated doses of technology at the community level will eradicate the distress of many urban communities. Just like a human body suffering from an illness, the distressed condition of a community should not be considered normal, and the illness eradicated. To that end, I’ve been able to collaborate with communities, brands, and organizations to use technology to promote normalcy. But why would anyone believe this is even possible?

From Whence I Came:

Community Development: Technology Makes the Impossible Seem NormalI never forgot how technology, my old TRS-80 computer, served to bring people together when I was a kid and still dream of one day making that happen in our more distressed communities. I believe this was so very possible that, in 2002 I decided to quit my job. I’d watched major companies use technology to create many of the things we take for granted today, but were considered impossible back then. So I left corporate America after coming up with an idea – New Media for Community Development. But what would that look like?

The Starting point: Looking Different to be seen differently

Community Development: Technology Makes the Impossible Seem Normal

In 2004 I created a series of performances in small local venues. There was no Facebook or YouTube at the time, so I designed an online channel, YouAspire, which showed performance segments a couple of days after the events and a monthly online music album with songs from local artists.

Community Development: Technology Makes the Impossible Seem NormalThe community embraced the concept and these shows, in the ‘hood’, became a hot item. I was inundated with CD’s and cassettes from artists hoping to perform each month. People came from around the country to check out the shows.

Venues that hosted the events had to increase staff on the nights of our events Soul Café and Ecclectic Rhythms. From 2004 – 2008, people used computers more to stay informed and access the content, spent their money on entertainment and dining in the neighborhood, and additional dollars came from the general public into the community. The model had proven a socioeconomic success. But we needed more.

Rebranding and the Distribution of Hope

Community Development: Technology Makes the Impossible Seem Normal
Mayor Emanuel’s Chief of Staff Felicia Davis announcing the 2012 Violence Stops Here scholarship winners.

Disinvestment in distressed communities is a serious problem. And the media’s focus on youth based violence isn’t exactly enticing anyone to put their dollars into communities on Chicago’s south and west sides. I wanted to give youth a voice to creatively express themselves and represent their communities for the sake of rebranding “normal” for themselves and the world.

In 2010 I worked with Chicago Beverage Systems, 51st Street Business Association and aldermen from Chicago’s south and west sides to produce the first Violence Stops Here campaign, an annual 6-month online competition where Chicago youth submit poems and songs about their views on stopping violence or what their community would be like with no violence.

The late Hon. Alderman JoAnne Thompson stated, “The Violence Stops Here campaign affords our youth an opportunity to speak freely and creatively on issues that directly impact their lives.” The idea is that the competitors and supporting communities spend at least six months thinking about the notion of stopping violence and that would result in the reduction of violence. Additionally, the general public would experiencing a more relevant perspective of our youth, viewing online entries, voting, and experience the collective message of the competition.

Community Development: Technology Makes the Impossible Seem NormalLater that year I was invited to be co-deviser on Collaboraction Theatre’s CrimeScene: A Chicago Anthology, a play derived from stories of real issues and solutions occurring in Chicago communities and a community discussion that served as a catalyst for action.

Collaboraction seeks to manifest and redistribute Hope in distressed Chicago neighborhoods by creating communal artistic experiences and opportunities to eradicate ignorance and uplift inspiration, allowing Chicagoans to see, hear and feel the history and current issues while spotlighting the stories of peacemakers who are working everyday to increase the peace.

The following summer Chicago Park District commissioned Collaboraction to perform CrimeScene monthly through parks in Chicago neighborhoods. Community Development: Technology Makes the Impossible Seem NormalThe show was reformatted as a two day event featuring a cookout, classes teaching residents to create their stories and performance of the show now rebranded Let Hope Rise.

Let Hope Rise is now an annual variety show featuring performers, animation, food, fun and community discussion. We run the show monthly at several Chicago neighborhood parks January through August.

When it’s Broken, Fix it! (or build an App)

Community Development: Technology Makes the Impossible Seem NormalIn September 2012 a Northwestern Medicine report concluded “a person near a liquor store or tavern on the West Side or South Side of Chicago is up to 500 times more likely to be shot than others in these neighborhoods.” A month later, I again teamed up with Chicago Beverage Systems, Reyes Holdings, several liquor suppliers, and aldermen from Chicago’s south and west sides to architect Chicago’s Responsible Retailer Initiative.

We created the RRI as an alternative to closing the stores, and to reduce a unique and growing set of problems arising out of the operation of these businesses. Chicago’s mayor lauded the effort saying, “We are asking liquor establishments to do what is right in their communities, to be responsible retailers, to become more involved in the communities they serve, to improve the area and quality in and around their stores.” Store owners complied and even came together to fund the Violence Stops Here campaign.

Community Development: Technology Makes the Impossible Seem NormalMany of the store owners expressed a major concern – vacant and abandoned buildings in their retail corridors. To address this issue I designed the Urban Property Portal, an app that uses predictive analytics to help crowd source the development of those properties. The app is prototypes stage with the goal of deploying a 2016 beta version in partnership with local aldermen.

The idea of deploying low-cost, high-impact apps was intoxicating. In 2014 I joined the advisory board for Jail Education Solutions, a tablet based app for education, inspiration and motivation for inmates of correctional facilities, including juvenile detention centers, jails, prisons and post-release programs.

Community Development: Technology Makes the Impossible Seem NormalThere is a void in community production that occurs when people are behind bars. “….that’s a lot of wasted idle time that makes facilities less safe and leaves individuals unprepared,” Brian Hill, CEO Jail Education Solutions. “It’s arrested development and it’s doing a lot of damage in the long term.” My hope is that communities will begin generating additional relevant content for the tablet as well as apps that can augment the process of reducing recidivism and subsequently improving citizenry.

Community Development: Technology Makes the Impossible Seem NormalAs program director for the 2015 Urban Sustainability Apps Competition, I wanted to give people the opportunity to transform from consumers of technology to producers of technology. With the support of Microsoft, the Center for Neighborhood Technology is producing the annual competition to bring together community minds and technologists to initiate the creation of apps that offer significant civic impact, attract users, and are relatively inexpensive to design code and deploy.

The competition connects the potential of technology to the talented visionaries in our communities and help to deploy solutions at the grassroots level. Since January, I’ve been speaking with several community organizations to spark the notion that anybody, can come up with ideas to solve problems from within the community. My hope is the resulting apps will continue to illuminate the cross-section between the advances in technology and potential to rebuild communities.

No Limitation

I am devoted to this time where, greater than any other moment in human history, groups of people can digitally converge on ideas and issues and ask “What if?” and then democratize the creation solutions – quickly and inexpensively – often for free. This has to be the era to devote sheer brain power and will toward this purpose – eradication of the distress on our urban communities. We have the tools, the technology, and the ideas. I am confident we can create for tomorrow those things that are seemingly impossible today – and maybe make our communities and the world just a little more normal.

Community Development: Technology Makes the Impossible Seem NormalSteven C. Philpott, Sr. is the Founder of XtraMedium Communications, Social Ventures Fellow at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, executive board member of Collaboraction, and Advisory Board member of Jail Educations Solutions. 

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